By Sherrie Norris
About this time every year, at least four youthful senior citizens in the area — and several others representing the younger generation — begin anticipating a special event for which they’ve been planning since the last one.
Raymond Scholl, Lynn Castle, John Ray Hodges and Mack Hodges are today the only surviving charter members of the Carolina Flywheelers, which has hosted the annual High Country Crank-Up for over 40 years now. The four are still actively involved and couldn’t be happier to see their hard work continue to pay off.
They’ve been joined through the years with younger members, for which they are thankful to have carrying on a long-held tradition started right here in these hills.
Reminiscing about the club and all it has accomplished through the years is something Betty Hodges loves to do. She shared with us that her husband, John, has been an enthusiast of the old-timey motors for a lifetime and drew her in to the club to help shortly after it was formed.
“We’ve had the crank-ups all over the county and into Ashe County, as well” she said, “from Parkway School, to the old High School, the old fairgrounds and we even held it at Tweetsie Railroad. We held that one in the fall and called it Autumn Leaves Crank-up. One year it snowed and we just about froze to death, so we changed it to the summer.”
Thanks to the generosity of the late Mack Brown and his family, Hodges said, the event has been held at its current location for several years. “It is very convenient for everyone. It’s a flat, level field, but has no water or shade and is very primitive, but it works. People down the way like to come up here to the mountains to cool off in the middle of the summer. And some come early and stay late, and of course it helps the local economy, as many need lodging and meals before and after the show, etc. And sometimes they need other things to do since it usually rains at least one day during the three-day show. Plus, it’s just a clean family gathering that many people look forward to each year.”
The Man Behind The Motors
Few steam engine fans can rival Raymond Scholl when it comes to enthusiasm, knowledge and generational involvement in preserving the history of antique steam engines and related farm implements.
An Ohio native who moved to Watauga County with his family in 1966 when he was just a boy, Scholl grew up with a love for machinery and especially antiques, He had not only a curiosity for same, but he also developed a natural ability for their repair and restoration.
Through the years, his family owned many of the implements that captured his attention; In fact, the Scholls, in 1953, were among the first to ever restore one of the steam engines.
By the time they moved to the area, the family had amassed quite a collection, which they were able to display locally when they reopened Frontier Village near Mystery Hill and Tweetsie.
Military service interrupted any opportunity for Scholl and his brother to delve into the museum full-force, but after they were discharged, they joined their father in going to stem shows, and restoring hit-and-miss engines.
“When I got back out of the service in ’70, I started talking to dad about having our own steam show,” he said.
And so it was, the first official “crank-up” in the nation was held here in Watauga County, at Frontier Village, the term for which was coined by Scholl’s wife in 1971.
It required a lot of hard work, he recalled, still with vivid details of how he orchestrated just the right environment for a successful show.
And, it must’ve worked.
“The term crank-up caught on and is now used everywhere for these types of events,” he said.
Despite his grandfather telling him that he “probably wouldn’t make any money at it,” Scholl said it led to a lot of good times in which he’s met a lot of nice people who share his love for the unique hobby.
Scholl’s fellow enthusiasts tell us that he is quite the expert in all that matters, a well-oiled machine himself, when it comes to organizing, repairing, restoring and promoting the hit-and-miss concept that could easily become a thing of the past.
Scholl, with his vast knowledge, ability and interest, has become well-known around the country, his associates tell us.
“Nobody knows much more, if anything, about these things than he does,” said A.J. Miller, current president of the Carolina Flywheelers.
Scholl’s association with the late Charles Church, who worked for Tweetsie at the time, led to the formation of the fly-wheelers organization, as well as to annual shows; the first one beyond the two at Frontier Village was held in the parking lot of Tweetsie in 1976.
“I was finished with museum work by then,” said Scholl. “Dad and I were offered jobs with the folks at the Southeast Thrashers in Denton, but we wanted to do something on our own.”
Even so, for over 30 years, Scholl was part of the Denton show which was promoted as the greatest steam, gas and antique farm machinery show in the southeastern U.S.
Tweetsie sponsored the local show in Blowing Rock in 1976 and ‘77, the Scholls hosted the next two near their home in Sugar Grove in ’78 and ’79.
Scholl remembers well the first official show of the Flywheelers in 1980 at Parkway School, with Church as the president of the organization. The next event was at the Old Watauga High school with the help of the late Bob Davis, auto mechanics teacher and member of the Flywheelers.
“Then, for a number of years, we were at the current High Country Fairgrounds; then, at the campground at Greenfields in West Jefferson for a couple of years,” he said. “We found a place just before you get to Deep Gap, but it was not big enough, before we landed the Brown Family property, where we’ve been for about 15 years now. They have been very gracious to let us use that property.”
Since finding a permanent home, the High Country Crank-Up has become known throughout the country, Scholl said. “We are a historical nonprofit with the whole idea of preservation of the antique tractors, especially hit- and-miss gasoline engines.”
One year, Scholl recalled. “We had 400 engines . . . we were really on a roll back then.”
It’s not unusual, he said, to have engines that date back to 1910, tractors from 1930 and newer.
“We have many exhibits that are educational and informative, ones that actually show steam engines hooked up to those things that they power,” he described. “We have steam traction engines and portable steam engines, and now even riding lawn mowers that have caught on.”
The pedal tractors that go back to WWII, he said, also draw a lot of attention, especially among the children.
“We set up a little place to have a semblance of a tractor pull for the kids. They love it.”
Exhibitors are more than happy to talk to thers and explain their exhibits, Scholl said. “We’re well known for being welcoming and friendly. That’s what has kept us going.”
Scholl’s family has owned steam-operated equipment since just after the Civil War. “Steam flows in my veins,” Scholl said. “My brother worked at Tweetsie for over 30 years. My daughter used to take her nursing clothes off from Watauga Medical Center and go operate the steam engines at the shows. My son now goes to Minnesota and runs a steam shovel.”
Scholl himself has been “a fixture of sorts” at the Indiana Tri-State Gas Engine and Tractor Association in Portland, Indiana,” having missed only three shows in 40 years.
“They come in there from all over the world,” he said.
A self-proclaimed history buff and veteran with a deep love for his country, Scholl says he knows “for a fact” that history does repeat itself, and he is thankful that this longstanding tradition has maintained its momentum through the years.
“I’m thankful that in the United States we can still operate this equipment and have a pretty much free rein,” he said.
As one who has worked on hundreds of engines, Scholl said it’s important to note that steam equipment must be inspected before it ever comes to a show.
He’s also grateful, he added, that some members of the current generation are showing an interest in steam engines, although he sees “a big gap” and worries that the fascination will diminish when the older folks are no longer around.
Scholl has owned a vast collection of engines and implements through the years, has numerous pieces with vast historical value, and has made a lot of connections along the way, he said.
He’s known for his mechanical prowess, and is one who doesn’t just make things run, but he doesn’t quit until he knows why it runs or why it doesn’t. He and his engines have been featured in the industry’s popular Gas Engine Magazine.
From a 4-H Club in Ohio to the hills of North Carolina, and everywhere in between, Scholl has become a great resource for those interested in steam engines. And having served as past president (longest serving to date with 12 years at the helm) no one could be happier to welcome the 41st High Country Crank-Up back to town.
“I’m just so thankful that we’ve got the interest that we have,” he said.
“We’re a good group that loves to share what we know with others. We invite everyone with any interest in these things to join us for the upcoming show.”